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Denis Horgan, Panama

Panama's Secret: Everything You'd Want in Travel in Vast Abundance

PANAMA CITY, Panama - What's best? Air the secrets of this amazing country and risk having it swamped with eco-visitors, or selfishly keep it quiet so as not to spoil the place. Well, the word on something this good will get out soon enough.

It is terrific in just about every way. I broke my first rule of being on the road here: Always check the alarm clock in a new hotel room. So, of course, I was blasted awake at 5 a.m. by the predecessor-guests early wake-up call. Even before 5 a.m., though, I was eager for the day to begin. Staying at the outlying but very neat Holiday Inn we got to simply look out the window and see gigantic ships sliding through the Panama Canal locks. What a way to start the day.

I'll share a few quick observations over the next few installments: The canal and rain forests; the zippy highlands and cloud forests; the beaches of the Caribbean and more fascinating flora and fauna. If I can figure out how to do it, or whistle-up a teenager for advice, I'll share some pictures, too, later.

Start with this: Panama has it all. There is the booming, frisky Panama City on the Pacific side, a jumping town full of history, restaurants, casinos and things to see & do. There are the rain forests and jungly lakeside nature preserves booming with wildlife and greengreen vistas. There are the cool highlands to the west and the dicey, forbidding mysteries of Darien to the east. There are the beaches and islands of the Caribbean or Atlantic. Regions as different from one another as whole countries are from one another. Great food and music. Warm weather. Culture. Nature/nature/nature and more nature. And uniquely in the entire world: The canal.

Costa Rica stole the march on nature visits years ago, when it alone had the wisdom to see the eco-trends and it alone had a clean government rather than the bogusly beribboned generals and dictators in charge elsewhere. But as wonderful as Costa Rica is its very popularity clutters the landscape with visitors while our travel to Panama in high season was almost like having the place to ourselves. Panama has cleaned up its act and is working to attract tourists to sample its riches.

My son and I flew in from Newark International on a five-hour nonstop Continental flight costing about $375 with all the taxes and fees. You cant get to California for that. Wed booked a very reasonable tour with Wildland Adventures and everything worked wonderfully. The hotels were great, the food terrific, the sights one after an amazing another breathtaking. In the young hands of our super guide, Deibys Fonseca, we traveled like pashas.

We started with the canal, a majestic engineering and human accomplishment in the building of it and a fascinating thing to see and take part in now, just short of a century after it opened. Ships the size of small cities squeeze into the locks, paying what seems like a fortune to take a shortcut between the oceans a fortune they are content to hand out rather than sail around the huge South American continent to get to the other side. There are books galore on the building of the canal, none better than David McCulloughs elegant Path Between the Seas. You can read until your eyes ache though but nothing approaches sailing into the canal itself. With astonishing efficiency the locks lift you up or drop you down the 87 feet which distinguish between the oceans and the watery land-line. It is fast. It is easy. It is a wonderwork of the mind and labors of so many who battled disease, nature, the weather to create the glory of the Panama Canal.

The canal, seamless locks at either end, is mostly lake in the middle where the monster ships toodle alone, seemingly without a thought to the work and sacrifice that went into making the canal. Thousands of vessels, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, carrying the worlds cargoes and passengers in a few short hours from one sea to its sister. Along the route, though, whole worlds are opened up to us visitors in small boats skittering along in the shadows of the leviathans. It almost seems too easy.

The canal alone could be worth a visit to Panama, and there are humongous cruise ships which haul along their thousands of passengers imagining that they are actually seeing the canal or Panama by looking out the window. Its better than not doing it at all but their experience pales to nothingness compared to that of people spending hours watching, experiencing the canal and it steamy surroundings, up close and personal.

We took separate tours into the jungles. First we rode a thin motorized piragua or canoe deeper and deeper into the Chagres River network, trekked through the jungles for a time to a lovely waterfall pool and visited an encampment of the Embara Drua folk who fed us, put on a dancing show and the like. It is apparently the regulation that all the Embara Drue women are required to be beautiful. I got a tattoo there, which I am assured will fade away some day, but resist adopting the skimpy loincloth garb of the males as it is likely a bit impractical to have ones butt hanging out into the New England winter.

The next day we took a slightly bigger boat, capable of holding about six people into the Gatun Lake and visited the edges of wondrously beautiful jungle islands. We saw sloths in the trees and little iguanas and millions of colorful birds of all shapes and sizes, butterflies floating around like postage stamps in the breeze. We saw all sorts of monkeys and were growled at and menaced by an angry Capuchin looking more like the monks than capuccino coffee. Creepy vultures, who likely think were pretty creepy too, but better tasting, soared overhead. Hawks and tiny little sparks of birds flashed around, too numerous to count although the birders know that Panama is a place to overwhelm their tally books.

It is hot, as hot as Florida used to be during the winter. Eighty-five degrees and more every day. It is not supposed to be raining in the dry season but the climate change hits here too and rains fall sometimes when it is supposed to be dry. There are bugs galore in the jungles but good insect spray and sound shoes will master most of them. The heroic and god-like doctors of the canals building defeated the mosquitoes that made malaria and Yellow Fever such a horrid part of life and, more, of death here. They simply do not exist anymore, those awful illnesses. Why there are not statues on every street corners to those doctors is a mystery. It requires a sense of adventure to be here, and prudence is always wise in the tropics anywhere. But Panama is safe.

Over time, Ive been in many jungles and don't much care for them, insisting that they are haunted. But the jungles of our Panama tour were beautiful and evocative and exciting in their hothouse abundance. Lovely.